April 1, 2021
Nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic closed most offices, we are beginning to see reasons for optimism. The population of those who have been vaccinated is growing, and the number of new cases is declining from the winter peaks. By midsummer, a good portion of the working-age population should be vaccinated.
Because of these hopeful signs, CEOs at companies that continue to work remotely are starting to think seriously about how and how much to bring their employees back to the office, and how to best answer questions about policies and timelines their boards will soon ask. They realize that given all that has happened over the last year, more employees than ever before will work remotely, and for tasks that can be done more efficiently that way, investments in technology will be necessary.
Less clear are answers to other types of questions that only the CEO can address because they’re more strategic and fundamental to the nature of the organization, such as:
How should we handle tasks and decisions that are best done face-to-face if employees prefer to work remotely?
What will the long-term impact of dividing the workforce be?
When do I have to make these choices?
To whom should I listen, and when?
While specific answers to such questions depend on the unique situation each leader faces, the guidelines below may help.
First, wise leaders will resist pressure to define a policy or make final decisions until it’s necessary to do so. We are nearer to the end of the pandemic every day, but we are not there yet. With uncertainty about what lies ahead, it is important to avoid steps that will either create unrealistic expectations or limit options. For such consequential decisions, one key success factor is to buy time to gather more information and leave options open as long as possible.
Second, in discussing return-to-work options and scenarios, leaders should keep their personal preferences to themselves. In government, top-level leaders are taught to never reveal their policy preference to military or intelligence advisers too early to avoid influencing the kinds and quality of analysis. Likewise, at this stage, CEOs should ask questions and refrain from making declarative statements for as long as possible.
Third, don’t put too much stock in data from employee surveys. Many companies have asked workers how many days (if any) they want to spend in the office post-pandemic. Some HR departments treat these surveys as gospel. Much of the current public commentary on this question assumes that after it’s safe to return to the office, many employees will prefer to remain working at home for much of the workweek. However, wise CEOs recognize that such opinions often change. What people say after a year of sheltering in place may not be meaningful this fall, particularly if by then they’ve lived for several months with fewer restrictions. In the same way that political leaders should not base decisions solely on public opinion polls, leaders must look at employee surveys as one data point.
They should also distinguish the differing views of their employees by polling managers separately. Many managers I talk with have found working remotely more frustrating than satisfying because their job involves tasks that are the most difficult to do remotely. They must ensure collaboration across department lines, coach employees, deal with people and relationship problems, and read the subtle signs of everyday interactions for barriers to communication. If they are not done well, morale and teamwork decline, and ultimately, innovation suffers. What managers may think about any return-to-work plan should carry special weight.
Fourth, leaders should recognize that company size is an important variable in these choices. Even well-run startups tend to be chaotic because the business is finding its way; it’s not yet clear what works and doesn’t. A large company can’t survive that way; without some predictability and routine, the risks and consequences of failure are higher. Larger organizations also need to rely more on formal policies and perceptions of fairness, limiting their ability to make decisions on a person-by-person basis, as a smaller organization might.
Fifth, leaders should not become transfixed by technological solutions to the problem of remote work when making this decision. When it comes to return-to-work decisions, the essential question is not “How can we use technology to make remote work more efficient?” Rather, the big questions should be: “What will we not be able to do well if we go too far in that direction?” and “What does going ‘too far’ look like?”
CEOs must factor in the costs to the culture of overreliance on remote work. Real teams (versus ones in name only) cannot be built online. Creativity depends on spontaneity and repeated unplanned iterations. Loyalty and dedication to a bigger purpose requires that people go through good and bad times together, shoulder to shoulder. Indeed, there are certain themes that emerge after listening to people describe their experiences during a year of working remotely. One is that the nature of conversations is more transactional than in the office. Similarly, discussions tend toward brevity, with less depth, and there is little time to think and reflect.
Finally, CEOs should avoid being influenced by high-profile companies (like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Adobe, and Oracle) that quickly announced plans to permanently embrace remote work. The most active advocates for expanded remote work are in industries that have the most to gain financially: software development technology companies. Remote workers use technological products and social media more than people in offices. This gives tech industries a rooting interest in what other companies decide. They aren’t necessarily the model for setting policy. Wise leaders will cautiously assess the sources (and self-interests) of these advocates of new, remote ways of working.
Policies regarding the mix of remote and in-office work have ramifications beyond short-term costs and efficiency. Because of what we’ve gone through over the past year, we are about to enter a new era in the evolution of organizations. Decisions that CEOs make over the next few months will set the tone for how work will be done in the future, with an outsize impact on the relationships employees have formed and their emotional connection with the company. They should be made carefully.
c.2022 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.
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